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Marxism and the Social Sciences

This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Maurice Dobb (1900-1976), the foremost Marxian economist of his generation in Britain. Dobb was for many years a Reader in economics at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Trinity College. He assisted Piero Sraffa in editing David Ricardo’s Works, and was noted for his contributions to value theory, the theory of economic planning, and the analysis of Soviet economic development. (During the 1950s and ’60s he contributed to Monthly Review on four occasions, mostly on socialist economic planning.) His best known work, however, was Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946), an investigation into economic history that was to inspire the famous debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, beginning with Paul Sweezy’s review of the book in Science & Society and the resulting exchange. In the 1940s, Dobb participated in the discussions of a group of British Marxist historians that included Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton, and it was out of this experience that Studies in the Development of Capitalism arose, as well as the following essay, first delivered as a contribution to a symposium on dialectical materialism in Cambridge, Easter term, 1942, and then published in revised form in The Modern Quarterly (London, new series) 3:1 (Winter 1947-48), 5-21.*Although little known, “Marxism and the Social Sciences” stands out as one of the classic statements on Marx’s method. Despite the almost fifty years since it was first drafted, it is scarcely dated (apart from a couple of references to the Soviet Union under Stalin), and is in our opinion well-worth close study, even by those already familiar with its subject matter.

The Editors

I should like to begin by saying something about the intellectual climate in which Marx’s thought was reared; since a doctrine generally appears more clearly delineated when it is contrasted with other contemporary doctrines or with ideas in critique of which the doctrine was born.

In the early and middle nineteenth century England and France were particularly influenced by two currents of opinion. The one, deriving from eighteenth century rationalism, held that the function of reason was to seek out and to teach what was the true interest of all men. Between members of society there existed a real harmony of interest which needed the light of reason to disclose; and when the task of enlightenment had been achieved, men would cease to be slaves of illusion and the ideal order of society would naturally appear because it was seen to be essentially rational. Writers like Adam Smith and Bentham had further argued that, even when the individual pursued purely selfish aims, there was an essential harmony which established that the public good, though unwilled, was nevertheless served (c.f. Smith’s famous comment that it was upon the self-interest, not the benevolence, of the butcher and the baker that we all relied for our daily sustenance). The corollary of this view was the maximum of freedom and the unleashing of the individual from restraint. The other (and later) doctrine usually resulted in a less optimistic belief in the results of freedom. It held that the purpose of social science was to extract from a study of history certain generalizations about human nature, and that the task of the reformer was to remodel society in conformity with these fundamental human characteristics; thereby imposing on society a unity that it would otherwise lack. But like the earlier view, it laid stress on the human mind as the agency of social betterment: for example, Saint-Simon’s search for a new intellectual unity, or, in the case of Comte instead of political agencies of change, his substitution of “an influence which is sure and peaceful although it is gradual and indirect: the influence of more enlightened morality, supported by a purer state of public opinion.” J. S. Mill, interpreting the views of Comte, adds that “the state of the speculative faculties, the propositions assented to by the intellect, essentially determines the moral and political state of the community, as we have already seen that it determines the physical.”

To views such as this Marxism stood sharply opposed. Against the first type it asserted that the posited harmony of individual interests did not exist. Consequently reason would not produce harmony but on the contrary reveal contradiction. Against the second type it declared that what Comte called “the essential laws of human nature” were purely abstract; that to search for universal principles on which to found an ideal society was to misunderstand history; and that changes in morality and in ideas in fact followed social change at least as often as they preceded it. For Marx “history consists precisely in the continuous transformation of human nature.”

Meanwhile in Germany the influence of Hegel had established a quite different tradition. Here the emphasis was that each stage of human society must be understood in terms of its ideal essence or spiritual character, which was something that both inhered in and lay beyond the mass of detailed particulars or aspects of society, just as the essential character of a man could be said to be expressed in, while being something more than, his particular behavior on a variety of occasions. Hegel said: “In the history of the World the Individuals we have to do with are Peoples, Totalities, that is, States.” Hence the various aspects of human society could not be separately treated, but must be viewed as an interrelated whole, of which the elements like single notes in a symphony were meaningless unless regarded as parts of the whole. Successive epochs of history had been marked by the dominance of successive national cultures, the conflicts between which represented the progress of the human spirit through contrasted opposites to a higher rationality. According to Hegel: “Every step in the process has its determinate peculiar principle. In History this principle is idiosyncrasy of Spirit—peculiar National Genius.…Religion, polity, ethics, legislation, even science, art and mechanical skill, all bear its stamp.” This climate of thought led to the glorification of the existing State as embodiment of the spiritual essence of the epoch—the State as “the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth,” and “the very condition in which freedom is realized.” It led to a championing of established system and order against the revolutionary tendencies of contemporaneous democratic creeds.

Marx shared with this viewpoint its insistence on grasping the essential character of a system of society in the pattern of its relationships, moreover in the tension or conflict inherent in them, rather than in a simple summation of its discrete elements or an analysis of its various aspects in separate departments. He shared also the notion of historical development as consisting in the successive clash of opposing patterns of relationships; each epoch being marked by a new pattern which, in dissolving its predecessor, had absorbed and transmuted the elements of which it had been composed. Unlike Hegel, he drew from this concept a revolutionary implication for the present as well as a revolutionary interpretation of the past. A further notion which Marx accepted both from Hegel and from the English economists was that, in Hegel’s words, “out of the actions of men comes something quite different from what they intend and directly know and will.” Hence this view was opposed alike to the attempts to explain social events in terms of the motives of individuals and to the opinion of Herbert Spencer (shared by most Positivists) that “the original factor is the character of individuals and the derived factor is the character of society.” But instead of seeing the economics and the social relations of an epoch as an expression of its ideal essence, the conception he held was the exact contrary (which is part of what he meant in calling his doctrine materialist). It was in terms of its social relations that the essential character of an age was to be sought: social relations that were grounded in the economic institutions of the time. It was this “mode of production” (as he termed it) that stamped its impress on the mind of the epoch—on moral and intellectual ideas, on legal and political forms. Historical development did not consist in the changing hegemony of successive “National Spirits”: in the opening words of The Communist Manifesto, “the history of all human society, past and present, is the history of class struggles.”

It should, perhaps, be made clear that when Marx spoke of the mode of production as the prime determinant, he was not offering a simple technological explanation of society, as some critics and commentators have assumed. According to his use of the term, it included, not only the “forces of production,” but also the “relations of production.” These latter referred to relations between men (relations which Marx adds “are necessary and independent of their will”), which were simply an aspect of the relations in which men stood to the productive forces: for example, the relationship between masters and slaves in a slave economy or of capitalists and workers in contemporary society, depending on their respective characters as owners and owned or as propertied and propertyless. It was essentially the contradiction between the productive forces and their development, on the one hand, and the prevailing relations of production on the other, which, in the form of a sharpened antagonism between classes, caused the disintegration of a mode of production and its eventual supersession.

In making statements of this kind Marx was, of course, making generalizations about the nature of social development. Whether they are to be properly classified as a philosophy of history or simply as a method of interpretation (as Croce insists) I do not propose to discuss. It is essentially as a method of analysis, or a framework of thought, in the social sciences that I shall be dealing with them. But in saying this I do not wish to oppose a canon of interpretation to a theory of history and of society, as Croce does (presumably because of his anti-materialist approach); since it appears to me that statements of this kind about the general shape of society must necessarily constitute a method of interpretation and a social theory at one and the same time; and that they can provide a valid method only in so far as they afford a true theory. The essential reason is that Marxism (as stated in the famous Theses on Feuerbach) is a method, not only of interpreting the world, but of changing it; and to be an effectual method of acting upon the world, it must apprehend essential truth about the nature of that world, even if that truth cannot be final and absolute. Antonio Labriola spoke of Historical Materialism as “merely a method of research and of conception,” and “analogous to Darwinism which also is a method.” Lenin (writing in 1899) said: “we do not regard it as something final and inviolable…(but) as providing only general guiding principles.”

These “guiding principles” have often been decried as “metaphysical notions and the Marxist method as consisting in the a priori construction of interpretations in which the actual course of history is deduced without any empirical study of historical data. That this has no justification is demonstrated by the care which Marx took to soak himself in historical detail and by the richness of historical content in his various writings. It is demonstrated, moreover, in the actual practice of leading Marxists in undertaking the most detailed study of actual situations and in strictly subordinating the policies appropriate to a particular time and place to such study: a quality of realism in the thought and practice of Marxism which is the leading impression that a reading (for example) of the writings of Lenin or of Stalin must leave upon one (vide the attention paid by Lenin to concrete study of The Development of Capitalism in Russia and the dominating influence which this had on Bolshevik policy throughout the revolutionary epoch). Marx himself, as a matter of fact, spoke caustically about “metaphysicians who, making abstractions, the more they detach themselves from things, imagine themselves to be getting all the nearer to the point of penetrating to the core.” In one of his letters (to the Editor of Otechestvennie Zapiski in 1877) he wrote of some historical question: “By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find a clue; but one will never arrive there by the universal passe-partout of a general historico-philosophical theory, which explains everything because it explains nothing, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.” In The German Ideology he spoke of “abstractions which arise from the observation of the historical development of men” as having “in themselves no value whatsoever” when “viewed apart from real history.” “They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material, to indicate the sequence of its separate strata. But they by no means afford a recipe or scheme for neatly trimming the epochs of history.”

Actually, these general statements about society differ little from the principles of which all scientific method is made. They depend for their verification on the success of the method of analysis that they support; the evidence in support of them accumulating in the degree to which social and historical analysis and contemporary political action, with the aid of this method, proceed. The question is sometimes asked: why bother about constructing such generalizations? Why not just dig out the facts? This objection need hardly detain us very long. The answer is, I think, the simple one that facts never speak for themselves and that even the process of digging for them presupposes some principle of selection. Preconceptions inevitably influence, not only our selection of facts, but the way we isolate them and frame them for the purpose of working upon them and putting questions to them. In other words, the mind is never (and can never be) a passive mirror to events, and there is always an active element in knowledge as we acquire it. Moreover, we are active in the sense that we are part of the process we are observing, and hence influence it, however detached we may try to be. (To take an agnostic view about causal sequences is itself to take an attitude, at any rate, when we are dealing with social action and social change.) Hypotheses, which we always have in some form, either implicit or explicit, may illuminate our way or blind us: and we had better choose the most illuminating one we can find. J. S. Mill, who was a thinker sufficiently steeped in the empirical tradition, has written as follows (in his System of Logic) of those general laws or principles of sciences which, like the social sciences, are still at an early stage of development. “These general truths will doubtless make their first appearance in the character of hypotheses; not proved or even admitting of proof in the first instance, but assumed as premises for the purpose of deducing from them the known laws of concrete phenomena.” Then as they are used as “technical help to the human faculties,” they become “tested by the canons of legitimate induction” (vol. 1, 562-3).

Such statements can never, of course, enable one to deduce the new social situation that will succeed the existing one in anything approaching its totality; if only because the essence of revolutionary change is that something new in quality is born. But that is not to say that nothing can be deduced about the new situation: certain tendencies can be detected and certain features of the new foretold. A Marxist from his specific analysis of Capitalism can reasonably deduce certain tendencies in its development and from that can further deduce that the socialization of the means of production is the only complete solution and that this in turn will have certain results. But he is thoroughly justified (or was at any rate prior to 1917) in refusing to attempt any detailed sketch of what such a socialist society would be like. When one is still in a capitalist world, the data on which to base answers to such questions simply do not exist.

At the same time it should, perhaps, be made clear that I have been referring here to causal statements about the nature of social change and the form of interaction of various social elements. Necessarily linked with these are certain other statements about the form of development through different social stages or systems, and the dependence of later stages on earlier. Obviously Marx thought that each stage of development contributed some element necessary for the succeeding one (e.g., a proletariat and machinery for Capitalism, and large-scale technique and organization and a technically advanced working class for Socialism). In this sense the order of development was necessary and not fortuitous. In vol. 3 of Capital for example, he points out that in the antique world the growth of commerce produced slavery and only in the modern world was a lever to Capitalism; the actual outcome depending on the nature of the pre-existing mode of production—its “solidity and internal articulation.” But Marx certainly did not intend anything teleological in this; and he was certainly not enunciating some logical pattern or curve of progress from which the future course of history could be deduced by a process of simple extrapolation, as many of his critics have supposed. One example to show that he did not intend any rigid unilinear theory of stages is the importance he assigned to the revival of serfdom in Eastern Europe in the 16th century—the “second serfdom” as Engels called it. Moreover, there is a passage in his Ludwig Feuerbach where Engels refers parenthetically to the fact that “in human history there is not only an upshooting but also a down-growing branch.” At the same time there was a clear sense in which he regarded development as generally “progressive” in character: namely, its tendency with the growth of the productive forces to enhance man’s power over nature (measured by labor productivity). And the transition from Capitalism to Socialism he undoubtedly regarded as “progressive,” both in the sense that it would unfetter the material productive forces and also in the sense that it would emancipate man and change him from an object of production to a master of the productive forces, conscious of the “laws of necessity” and hence a conscious pilot of his own destiny.

A method of this kind is not something that can be summed up in a few aphorisms without strong risk of sounding either commonplace or dogmatic. Nevertheless, one must do one’s best to sum up in a few propositions what the Marxist method in the social sciences distinctively implies.

The first of these relates to the connection between ideas and economic conditions, to which we have already referred. Its practical relevance can be seen by contrasting two statements about social change which are perennially in debate. “You can only change society when you have brought about in men a change of heart.” “You can only change human nature by changing the economic conditions in which men live.” Few issues could be more fundamental to the framing of any political program; and it is a question on which it is clearly impossible for any active citizen not to take a view. As we have seen, the causal sequence for Marx was essentially from the socioeconomic structure of a given society to its ideology, and not the converse. “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life.” This is a statement, as it were, about the physiology of society. What often troubles people about it is a difficulty in reconciling it with the fact that men’s minds are not passive mirrors to their environment, but themselves exert an influence—that, as Marx himself was eager to point out, “man makes his own history” and things like ideology and “class-consciousness” are themselves factors in making revolutions which change the mode of production. Marx said that “by acting on the external world and changing it, man at the same time changes his own nature.” (Capital, vol. I. ch. VII.) There are passages in two letters of Engels’ in the ’90s which make it clear that he and Marx had no intention to deny the reciprocal influence of ideas on events. “Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc. developments are based on economic development (says Engels). But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic position is the cause and alone active, while everything else is only a passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which “ultimately always asserts itself.” Again, in a letter to Mehring he speaks of a consideration which “Marx and I always failed to stress enough in our writings and in regard to which we are all equally guilty. We all laid, and were bound to lay, the main emphasis at first on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions…from basic economic facts.” But it is “a fatuous notion that, because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history, we also deny them any effect upon history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction; these gentlemen forget that once an historical element has been brought into the world by other elements, ultimately by economic facts, it also reacts in its turn and may react on its environment and even on its own causes.”

Some have regarded this admission as tantamount to a retreat—as the dissolution of a causal-genetic statement into an admission of reciprocal interaction. One speaker* has implied that, once you admit that events have other than economic factors as their immediate causes, the only alternative left is between a fruitless hen-and-egg chase after Aristotelian final causes and a purely empirical listing of the variety of influences that are proximate causes of any particular historical event. I have never been able to see that views of this kind have any justification. For Marx and Engels a causal statement was never more than a partial truth and an approximation, a statement in a particular context, derived by isolating certain factors and certain chains of influence from the complex, interacting whole of which they were part. As such they were essential for practice, in throwing into relief certain dominant influences. A situation about which one can say no more than that there is a reciprocal interaction or a variety of proximate causes is a situation about which one does not know very much. That the state of mind of a tuberculosis patient may react on his state of health does not invalidate the medical diagnosis of the disease; nor does the fact that moons and planets interact make nonsense of the statement that moons go round planets and not planets round moons. Marx’s view of the relation between economic structure and ideology amounts, I suggest, to a statement about both the directness and the strength of the influence that the former exerts on the latter. By contrast, the influence which ideas have on society is subject to much straiter limitations. One aspect of this limitation was stressed by Herbert Spencer: “Ideas wholly foreign to this social state cannot be evolved, and if introduced from without cannot get accepted, or if accepted die out. Hence the advanced ideas when once established act upon society: yet the establishment of such ideas depends on the fitness of society for receiving them. Practically the popular character and social state determine what ideas shall be current.” Even Dicey recognized that “public opinion is itself far less the result of reasoning or of argument than of the circumstances in which men are placed.” Another aspect of this limitation is that men are seldom conscious of the real impulses which prompt them to action, and the ends their action serves are seldom the ends that they themselves envisage. When ideas are in a very special alignment with all other elements in the social situation—in particular, with the state of class relations—they may result in revolution; but only when they are in this particular relation to the general constellation. And precisely because at such times consciousness and ideas have such potency, Marxists have always stressed their role as against mechanistic theories of “spontaneous development.” A similar limitation is, I believe, true of the influence of great men, or of “small” and so-called “accidental” events. Engels once referred to a particular historical situation as being one of such unstable equilibrium as to constitute “one of the exceptional cases where it is possible for a handful of people to make a revolution.” This situation he likened to “a charged mine which only needs a fuse to be laid to it,” where “one small action in itself insignificant (can) release uncontrollable explosive forces;” to which, however, he added the comment that “people who boasted that they had made a revolution have always seen the next day that they had no idea what they were doing, and that the revolution made did not in the least resemble the one they would have liked to make.” But while the limitationsof the influence of ideas is stressed by contrast with previous doctrines, it is quite untrue that Marxism dethrones the influence of the subjective factor—of human thought and action—in favor of the rule of lifeless “objectivity.” Rather does Marxism stress the great potentialities of human action if, but only if, it is exerted in a particular way and in a particular direction, determined by the nature of the objective situation.

The implication of this for the methods of the social sciences is evidently that the various departments of social study must have economics as their central sun; although not economics as fashionably viewed today as a study of market relationships—a sort of algebra of choices and opportunities—but in the wider sense in which Marx conceived it as an analysis of the structure and movement of class relationships. By this I mean that all social studies, whether of politics, law or ideology, must share certain of the concepts, such as those of class and exploitation, which are central to the economic sphere, and only at the expense of realism can be developed on the basis of principles derived exclusively or mainly from their own spheres. A particularly striking example of this is the theory of politics. Here it has been traditional for theories of the State to be constructed out of concepts in which man as a political animal is abstracted from man in his economic relations (e.g., as member of a particular class). Perhaps I may be allowed to quote Professor Ginsburg who has written somewhere on the functions of the State that these are “to promote the common good and to define and maintain a system of rights.” I am not quite sure whether this is intended as a statement of an ideal or of a fact. But if the latter, it can be cited as an apt contrast to the Marxian dictum that the State is essentially (in Engels’ famous words) “an organization of the exploiting class for the maintenance of its external conditions of production, that is, for the forcible retention of the exploited class in such conditions of oppression (such as slavery, serfdom, wage-labor) as are determined by the given methods of production.” “The State,” he goes on, “was the official representative of society as a whole, its embodiment in a visible corporation; but it was this only in so far as it was the State of that class which itself, in its epoch, represented society as a whole.”

A second feature of the Marxian method is its insistence on the historical-relative character of social laws. From this it follows that social analysis should concentrate on special and peculiar features of a particular form of society, rather than attempt to abstract certain aspects common to all forms of society and on these assumptions to erect principles of universal application. Not that certain forms of wider generalization, such as those we have mentioned above, have no place. Clearly, there is room for some sort of social morphology or general statements about social change. But these can only be the formal framework, and not the foundation for more concrete studies, the leading principles of which will be substantially different in one system of society from what they will be in another. A good example of this is economics. There has been an increasing tendency in modern times to regard the leading propositions of economic theory as holding true of all types of economic society, so long at least as they are exchange-societies—even to regard them virtually as what are called (in Kantian terminology) “a priori synthetic propositions.” This attitude is not confined to the so-called Austrian School. One writer of a Cambridge textbook has spoken of laws which hold whether “merchant adventurers, companies and trusts, Guilds, Governments and Soviets may come and go,” operating “under them, and, if need be, in spite of them all.” One consequence of this has been the attempt of a number of writers to lay down, by analogy with present-day society, a set of rules as to how a socialist economy must regulate its affairs. By contrast, Marx treated the chief principles which his own economic analysis sought to establish as principles of a specifically capitalist economy. This is not to say that he denied altogether that analogies could be found between the workings of different types of system (still less that he regarded Political Economy as consisting only of a study of capitalist society): merely that such analogies were likely to be less important than the contrasts and their significance could only be assessed after one had established the differentia. Nor did he say that it was impossible to make general statements that were true of any economic system: merely that these were generally bound to be so abstract and formal and empty of real content as to be deceptive if made the basis of deductions about the laws of motion of a given society. Engels spoke of Political Economy as an “historical science,” which “must first investigate the special laws of each separate stage in the evolution of production and exchange, and only when it has completed this investigation will it be able to establish the few quite general laws which hold good for production and exchange considered as a whole.” “But anyone who wishes to bring under the same law the political economy of Tierra del Fuego and that of modern England can produce nothing but the most vulgar commonplaces.”

Thirdly, we must refer to the Marxian view of the form in which social change occurs. Other theories of society have generally treated change as a continuous function of the increase of some particular factor, such as consciousness or rationality or population or productivity or the division of labor, or Herbert Spencer’s organic size and differentiation. Marx, however, rejected this type of explanation in terms of continuous quantitative increase. The motive force of change, for Marx, was firstly to be looked for, not in some factor external to a given society, but internal to it; and secondly was to be sought primarily* in the antagonistic relations inside the mode of production—in other words, in class antagonism. According to Marx it was a case of “no antagonism, no progress.” Generally this antagonism did not become mollified, but on the contrary became heightened, as a given mode of production developed; at least, this tended to be so beyond a certain stage in a system’s career, in view of the tendency for the property-relations of that system to become eventually a fetter on the growth of the productive forces. Here social change had the shape, not of orderly progression along a continuous curve, but of periodic leaps promoted by a revolutionary rupture of the old social relations, the dissolution of the old mode of production and the emergence of the new. By this Marx did not mean that by some magic the achievements of a whole epoch could be crammed into a single revolutionary decree. He did not claim that Feudalism could be made to pass into Capitalism or Capitalism into Socialism overnight. He meant only that gradual and continuous modifications of a system could develop only within certain definite limits—limits imposed by the class-structure of that system itself. To transform that system into its opposite required the prior occurrence of a set of changes—a set which had to be treated as an organic whole. This organic set consisted of those social relations which composed the mode of production. A change in them at some stage required a revolutionary transformation in the balance of class power; these sharp bouleversements composing, as it were, steep and narrow (often precipitous) watersheds between more gently undulating valleys on either side of them.

Perhaps it will help to give shape to these general implications of the Marxian method if some particular examples are quoted where the fruit of this method when given practical application has contrasted strikingly with other doctrines. First, one may mention the very notion of Capitalism: a notion to which it is difficult to give much meaning unless one borrows Marx’s categories, at least in some degree. According to Marx, Capitalism consists in a particular form of class relationships. Sombart, in an encyclopedia article on the term, has pointed out that the majority of economists, and even many economic historians, have denied to the notion of Capitalism any validity at all. This is not an accident or a simple prejudice: it is because the categories they use exclude any notion of class exploitation (and I refer to class-exploitation, not as a moral judgement, but as a factual description of a relationship). Hence, the only definition of Capitalism to be found among most contemporary economists is the purely technical one of a system that uses a so-called “roundabout,” or mechanized, method of production (according to which, of course, either a slave society or a socialist one could be “capitalistic” in this sense). Moreover, Marx not only defined Capitalism in a static sense, but depicted it as a developing process in a novel way. In so far as the classical economists had sketched a theory of development, this had treated capital accumulation as a simple and continuous process of quantitative growth, which (given free trade and expanding markets) would lead to a progressive increase of wealth, and moreover (if population did not outstrip accumulation) to a rapid amelioration in the position of the working class. By contrast, Marx depicted the process of capital accumulation as a self-contradictory or self-defeating process: firstly, as a process which as it advanced generated recurrent economic crises which would arrest it; secondly, as something which, because it operated within the framework of a particular property system, produced a concentration of capital ownership and of industrial control. In other words, Marx alone among economists held a picture of Capitalism as developing towards the sort of Monopoly-Capitalism that we now know, with its restriction of output and its chronic unemployment and under-capacity working. At the turn of the century this picture was to be given greater concreteness in the theory of Imperialism, notably by Lenin, which showed Capitalism as a system driven on by a relentless urge to expansion—but expansion in a very different sense from the halcyon expansion of trade that the classical economists had envisaged. Can there remain today much doubt as to which picture is the more realistic—which has been justified and which condemned by the actual course of events?

As two final examples I will take one from economics and one from politics. It can scarcely be disputed, I think, that the bias of traditional economic thought has been towards treating the economic situation, not only in terms of social harmony, but mechanically in terms of equilibrium as a stable system. When we look at the world with unclouded eyes, there can be little doubt that this picture is something imposed on reality by the particular forms of thought which economists have used, and not vice versa. Since the events of 1929-33, indeed, certain economists have turned their attention to the study of fluctuations and of divergences from equilibrium (sometimes in the form of divergent, sometimes of convergent, series) as normal models of actuality. But this can not be said as yet to have been integrated with the general structure of economic theory, and thought and teaching in most centers of academic economics remain scarcely modified by this newest emphasis. The preoccupation of Marx, by contrast, already a century ago, was to show the system as composed simultaneously of equilibrating and disequilibrating elements; any situation where the former predominated tending periodically to pass over into a situation where the latter predominated. Economic reality for Marx was essentially movement through oscillation and interaction in which stability and instability represented simply contrasted extremes of tempo. It is hardly surprising that Marxian political economy should have been a theory par excellence of economic crises, whereas non-Marxian economics not only should have treated crises as something quite abnormal (due, e.g., to the presence of frictions or the impact of external influences), but should only very belatedly, and as an after thought, have produced any theory of crises at all.

As regards political strategy, an emphasis always present in Marx’s thought, but more explicitly formulated by Lenin, was that a social group or a party is generally impotent if it confines itself either to general propaganda of ideas or to being a sect of theorists or experts that tries to pull off some plan of social regeneration by palace intrigue or backstairs influence. Lenin once said in answer to romantic revolutionaries: “We do not need hysterical outbursts: we need the regular march of the iron battalions of the proletariat.” A political program could only become an historical influence if it ran with the stream of some extant social movement, resting basically on the self-movement of a class. Moreover, it must not only run with this stream, but fuse with it, and in doing so influence it. This it could do only if long-term policy or ultimate program was closely laced with a short-term policy or program of immediate demands, propaganda yoked with day-to-day agitation; the latter changing with the changing situation and bringing the former into union with what was of practical interest and concern to the politically unconscious mass (“Teach the masses; learn from the masses” was always a favorite slogan of Lenin). Unless this mass is shaped and nourished within the womb of the old order by the petty struggles and strivings of today, what Lenin termed “the historical initiative of the masses” will never be maintained and the new society of tomorrow will never be born. The French syndicalist Sorel (quondam Marxist and later Bergsonian mystic) expressed part of this (but part only and in an exaggerated form) when he said that the social movement was everything and the ultimate goal only of significance as inspiration to that movement. Another aspect of it is expressed in a Soviet party textbook (in a section which was the work of Stalin) in a passage which explains that Marxism teaches us not to “base our orientation on the strata of society which are no longer developing, even though they may at present constitute the predominant force, but on those strata which are developing and have the future before them,” even if at present these are weak and immature.

More concretely this political approach is seen in the Marxist attitude towards “reforms” and towards “allies of the working class” in the immediate movement. For Marx and his major disciples struggles for immediate reforms and movement towards the goal of social revolution have never been exclusive opposites. The former have been treated as concrete elements and particular moments in the latter (neglect of the former resulting in barren doctrinaire sectarianism and isolation and neglect of the latter in rudderless opportunism). Of this, past history and recent events alike are rich in examples: for example, the championing by Communists of democratic demands (e.g., peasant land reform) and measures having a “State-capitalist character” (e.g., measures of planned regulation over private trade and industry) in many countries of Europe today and notably in China; and this not just as an agitational slogan for an hour but as the program of governments in which Communists themselves participate. Such examples far from being novel “modernisms,” echo the famous declaration in The Communist Manifesto that “Communists fight on behalf of the immediate aims and interests of the working class, but in the present movement they are also defending the future of that movement.” And it is because they have this conception of politics as an actual historical movement that Marxists have laid such emphasis upon class-alliances between the proletariat and other social strata: between proletariat and peasantry in Russia in 1917; and between proletariat and peasantry and all progressive sections of the urban petite-bourgeoisie and “middle class” throughout Europe today. Here again the actual practice of Marxism is very far from the over-simplified black-and-white picture of social divisions, where all except the proletariat is “one homogenous reactionary mass,” that critics of Marxism so tirelessly and perversely foist upon it.

In conclusion, one can only add that for most people a social doctrine will claim or forfeit allegiance according to the degree to which it affords an illuminating interpretation of the present-day world. As an interpretation of the past it is widely admitted today that Marxism has proved a major stimulus to the writing of economic history. But as a method of interpreting the twentieth-century scene—moreover, as a remarkably early forecast of its leading features—its claims also rank very high. Can anyone seriously deny the substantial validity of Marx’s picture (never mind the detail of his drawing) of economic crises growing more and not less serious, of concentration of industrial control and ownership instead of their diffusion, of social tensions becoming more acute, instead of what Alfred Marshall called “the decline of exclusive class advantages in industry”? If there has been any period when the Capital-Labor problem has become dominant in political as well as in economic life, it has been, surely, the past thirty years? Has it not become increasingly true that convincing interpretations of events, whether in internal or in international politics, are those which mainly run in terms of a class analysis of the forces at work? And may I recommend one final instance to your attention? A factor which Marxists have been criticized for underestimating, and one which they could reasonably have been expected to underestimate because of their special emphasis on class, is nationality and national differences. If the government of the U.S.S.R. was to be expected to trip up over any problem, it was surely this one in a land of between 100 and 200 diverse nationalities. Is it not a remarkable fact that even in this most unlikely sphere of all a Marxian method of approach should have proved, not a hindrance but apparently a help: that a solution of a complex nationality problem should have been, by common admission, one of the signal achievements of Soviet policy (as more recently it has been of Communist policy in post-war Yugoslavia), and that during the war the U.S.S.R. should have provided an example of a multinational State with a unique degree of stability and cohesion? Such things may of course be dismissed as coincidences. But if so, they are coincidences that need a great deal of explaining.

* We have changed some spelling and punctuation to conform to U.S. usage, but have otherwise left Dobb’s article in the style in which it was written.—Eds.

* In the above-mentioned Symposium [at Cambridge in 1942]. The speaker referred to was Professor Postan.

* i.e., in recorded history to date, which was the history of class societies.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 04 (September)
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